Earth Day Sustainable Produce Safety

, Produce Safety Technician


In July 2019, the World Resources Institute released a report estimating that global population growth will create a 56% hunger-gap from 2010 to 2050, requiring worldwide food production to grow by 2.27 times. We often hear about how difficult it’s going to be to achieve that growth in terms of water, energy and land use, and that we’re going to have to grow world produce and grain production faster than meat production and fisheries to do it sustainably. But, it’s also worth appreciating that if we first don’t learn how to grow, harvest and handle our produce safely, the global food system could continue to be beset by excess food waste, price inefficiencies and foodborne disease outbreaks that will slow down world produce commodity growth.

Think globally, act locally is a saying that seems to grab headlines around Earth Day and fade into obscurity by summer. But consider for a minute that produce-growing powerhouses like Michigan can more efficiently use their abundant water, land and energy resources than they have in the past. Michigan’s growers can explore sustainable technologies and practices that reduce food waste, energy use and conserve freshwater with a lower barrier to entry than food producers in the developing world. Acting locally by improving upon produce safety practices and acting as a laboratory for change just may be the easiest low-hanging fruit to contribute to global food security and reducing wasted resources.

Fortunately, when it comes to produce safety, there can be a symbiotic relationship between improving harvest practices and reducing food waste. This starts with worker training on recognizing contamination events in the field and developing planned corrective actions to be able to send produce with quality concerns or heightened microbial risk to commercial processing streams. It’s also worth training workers understanding the need for clean harvesting containers and equipment, not only to reduce human pathogen concerns, but also alleviate postharvest food waste losses due to plant pathogens like phytophthora. There’s also something to be said for doubling-down on postharvest sanitation with energy efficiency and reducing wastewater generation.

One of the most common ways grower-packers are already doing this is by harvesting in the morning to reduce the heat gradient between product and cold-room storage that collectively contribute 17% of the total energy used in the world produce industry. Reducing this energy demand by using pre-cooling technologies, better cold-room insulation, air exchange and condenser systems and even optimized product management through smart-cooler and enhanced traceability digital technologies can shave down this energy cost while also reducing the potential for Listeria monocytogenes biofilm formation.

Another way grower-packers are already improving efficiency while addressing food safety is through addressing the need for improved sanitary design in washing, grading, sorting and packing equipment. These upgrades to legacy packing equipment generally have higher product throughput, meaning less energy expended per unit of produce. They are also definitively easier to clean, thereby generating less wastewater to expend energy to recover, while using less antimicrobial product. Improved equipment sanitation also means less postharvest losses due to product quality and food safety concerns, reducing the potential for food waste generation.